Kiwi lawyer leading the charge in social enterprise movement

by Sophie Schroder05 Sep 2014
An Australian law firm founded and led by a Kiwi has just become the first firm Down Under to be certified as a “B Corporation”, following the Australasian launch of the non-profit organisation behind the movement.

Clearpoint Counsel is now a certified B Corp, meaning it is legally required to consider the interests of stakeholders and not just shareholders when making everyday business decisions.

The concept, which is starting to hit shores Down Under, began in the US and is now a booming global movement made up of business leaders seeking to redefine success in business.

Clearpoint, a Melbourne-based law firm, was certified as a B Corp by global not-for-profit group B Lab. The firm was assessed on social good criteria such as governance, environmental responsibility and community engagement as part of its certification process.

The firm’s Kiwi founder and director, Joel Cranshaw, told NZ Lawyer that he was persuaded to become a B Corp after working with clients who used the certification to measure and manage their impact and profitability.

The decision was client driven, he says.

“I’ve been aware of B Corps for a while, and initially I was quite sceptical, but I’ve changed my view. I wondered how much the US knew about Australian law…

“But when we went through the B Corp certification process with a number of our clients, we realised it would assist to walk the talk while we pursued our mission to transform the provision of legal services in Australia.”

And although Cranshaw’s life is now very much in Australia, he’s a Kiwi boy at heart.

In fact, he studied law and politics at the University of Otago before spreading his wings abroad.

He suggests that any Kiwi firms interested in the B Corp movement should do some research.

“We would encourage any New Zealand law firms to get in touch and discuss the process.”

Recently, B Lab co-founder Bart Houlahan gave a popular TED talk explaining the history and journey of the B Corp movement.

Cranshaw believes there is currently a major social enterprise movement happening, and it’s something he wants to be a part of. He also feels that the B Corp concept fits in nicely with Clearpoint’s existing philosophy.

As part of the certification process, the firm changed its constitution to enshrine its purpose and added a raft of employees’ policies and procedures.

Among other things, it is now beholden to ensure the gap between the highest and lowest paid employee shrinks, practice community engagement and demonstrate environmental responsibility.

B Corps are also assessed on their clients and how they behave, which is just fine by Clearpoint.

“It makes us more attractive to clients that have these values, and they are the sort of clients we want to work with anyway,” says Cranshaw. “There are some huge corporates getting engaged in this because the brands they have stand for these values. It also helps us identify the clients and them to identify us.”

Anna Reeves, a lawyer and social enterprise advocate at Clearpoint, agrees, and says the firm’s in-house retainer model has allowed many of its clients to build a legal framework to achieve greater social and environmental impact, and more and more companies are now adopting this model.

“This is probably one of the biggest shifts in business we will see in our lifetime,” she says.

There are now around about 40 B Corps operating in Australia and two in New Zealand, sitting alongside massive global brands such as Ben & Jerry’s.

The first Kiwi B Corps are Snakk Media and Eagle Consumables.

Alicia Darvall, the executive director of B Lab in Australia and New Zealand, told NZ Lawyer about big plans for the region.

She'll be visiting us in a fortnight to be part of the Sustainable Business Network conference, and will be doing events in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

One of Darvall’s main goals for the long term is that every company in Australia and New Zealand will use B Lab’s free online assessment tool as part of their yearly report and to provide a benchmark for the year to come.

The online assessor - which is used by about 15,000 businesses globally - sets out transparent standards, provides publically available benchmarks to allow companies to compare their impact, and includes tools to help businesses improve their impact over time.

“But my short term view is to build up the B Corp community here so we have exemplars we can talk about. It becomes almost an industry association,” Darvall says. “We as B Lab act as an enabler to introduce businesses to any other B Corps around the world. It’s quite collegiate from that perspective.”

She says being a certified B Corp could be a great employee engagement tool for law firms as competition continues to heat up amongst a tight talent pool.

“It’s about ‘why should I work for you and not your competitor?’ The millennials are increasingly making decisions about working for people that save the world rather than give them huge salaries…Also if your clients are in this space, you need to be too. I suspect it’s about being ahead of the times.”